Road Test: Alfa Romeo Spider

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Gordon Cruickshank

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Twilight days

Following the take-over of Alfa Romeo GB by the TKM Group, rumours that the venerable Alfa Spider was to be added officially to the dealer range and sold across the country have been dispelled. This must have been a relief to Bell and Colville, the Surrey-based Alfa Romeo, Saab, and Lotus dealers who until recently have been the sole source of new Spiders in this country for several years . However, it now looks as if 1988 will see the end of production, as Bertone who builds it needs the space to make Cadillac Allante shells.

Last year we tested one of the cars, which are bought with delivery mileage but technically second-hand from Europe, usually Holland or Belgium, and converted to right-hand drive in this country. The conversion is done using factory parts, just as it was in the seventies when the Spider was on ARGB’s current strength — yes, it was switched to RHD on these shores even then — and the visible quality of the work is excellent, so I was disappointed to find that the car seemed to lack the poise and charm that its long-standing reputation recalled.

Of course, standards march on; and the car now sits on chubby low-profile rubber which it was never designed for; but how much allowance should one make? It is still an eye-catcher and pleasant to drive in the sunshine, so I was happy to use the recent revisions to the more lavish Green Cloverleaf model as an excuse to absorb one of those brief but brilliant spells of sun that the country enjoyed in April. The car was loaned to us by Gilberts of Ealing, who now join Bell and Colville as suppliers, though both firms take converted cars from the same workshop, so the product is the same. Gilberts aims to catch the metropolitan customer from its West London premises, more usually filled with every sort of Porsche, plus a variety of interesting transport. (Shortly before my visit, the company had sold an MG Midget with less than 2000 miles on it; the car had been retained in store by a dealer for some years before its eventual sale.)

In themselves, the extras which differentiate the Green Cloverleaf Spider from the standard version are mainly visual — fancy alloy wheels with Pirelli P6 tyres, and the fibreglass spoilers and skirts which have aroused so much debate. But for this year, a number of trim changes have tidied up the details inside. A new dash replaces the previous two prominent cowls, a hood-bag has been added, and the boot is now neatly trimmed in matching carpet. The hood-bag is very tidy, and has the benefit of covering up anything left on the rear shelf; it is not exactly secure, being fastened only with a zip, but it makes one feel easier about, for example, popping into the kiosk to pay for the petrol.

I was rather taken with the new dash. Though I have always felt that the previous twin cowls were an exaggerated ’60s styling feature, designing a suitable replacement cannot have been easy. The new binnacle looks neater but still draws on a traditional form, that of a tall rounded unit packed with round dials, like the dash of a 308 Ferrari. Unfortunately I could not see the top two, oil pressure and volts. An all-black centre console carries the heater controls, and the long gear-lever sticks through at a very old-fashioned but natural to use angle. Electric window switches, fog-lamps and remote mirror adjustment occupy a panel in front of the gearlever. New leathercloth seats look very luxe, but they are actually convincing fakes, and rather sticky in hot weather.

No changes have been made to the alloy twin-cam: it still squeezes out 130 rather noisy bhp at 5400 rpm, and performance is respectable if you work at it. But I had really been hoping to feel some improvements in the suspension, such as crisper steering and less roll-oversteer. Perhaps the red car answered the helm a little faster, and delayed a little longer before wanting to wag its tail, but the wheel felt just as lifeless; assembly tolerances might well account for such small differences. Then again, perhaps the sunshine went to my head.

A new leather steering wheel is one more improvement — I cannot get on with the wood rims that Alfas used to sport, and have always immediately replaced them on my own Alfas.

For summer days the Alfa Spider remains one of the most attractive convertibles on the market, and that hood is only now being rivalled by the likes of the BMW 325i Cabrio design for simplicity of operation. It is rather refreshing, too, to see a car which is so widely recognisable as a classic shape that it does not immediately classify its driver by social status. Green Cloverleaf models are priced at £15,495, unadorned versions at £13,995. GC

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